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Nic Robertson: Report from Quetta and his last days in Afghanistan

Nic Robertson is senior correspondent based at CNN's London bureau. He was the last Western correspondent in Kandahar, Afghanistan, before leaving on September 19. He joined the chat room from Quetta, Pakistan, near the Afghan border.

CNN: Greetings Nic Robertson. We're very pleased to have you with us today.

ROBERTSON: Hi from Quetta, close to the border with Afghanistan.

CNN: Nic, could you begin by sharing with us a bit about what was happening in Kandahar during your last days there and why you had to leave?

ROBERTSON: The reason we went to Kandahar was to try to convince the Taliban foreign minister to let us stay in Afghanistan. An edict had come from Taliban leader Omar demanding that all foreigners leave because the Taliban could no longer ensure their safety. We were also trying to report the story that the Pakistani diplomats delivering the demand to the Taliban that they should surrender Osama bin Laden or face the consequences. As it became clearer we were going to have to leave, we seemed to be working harder and harder by the hour.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How are you able to get information and remain safe at the same time?

ROBERTSON: In Pakistan, it's easy to remain safe. There's very little threat towards us. What we do to get out information from Afghanistan is call people we left behind in Afghanistan, local Afghans. We call them on satellite telephones that we left with them in order that they can provide us with information. They, in turn, talk to Taliban officials in their cities.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think the "house of cards" scenario is viable? Would the Taliban fall if locals are empowered?

ROBERTSON: I'm not sure how locals are going to be empowered. I think if you mean if Afghanistan is attacked, will the Taliban crumble? There is a lot of evidence to support the theory that if the country of Afghanistan is attacked, the Afghans will unite in the face of that attack. Certainly, a lot of people have told us, whatever their feelings about the Taliban, if the country is attacked, they will fight back. However, a sustained international campaign against the Taliban would likely mean their longtime enemies, the Northern Alliance, who control at the moment only 5 percent of the country, would try and take any military advantage they could. There are also other pockets of resistance and influential commanders in other parts of Afghanistan who might also see this as an opportunity to rise against the Taliban. The resulting scenario would be a lot more hardship to the average Afghan, a return in many ways to the pre-Taliban days of Mujahadeen fighting.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are you seeing a lot of preparation for what lies ahead for the people of Afghanistan?

ROBERTSON: The preparation really, by the people, is to try to get out of harm's way. Most people are too poor to flee across the border to Pakistan. Many, many people have left cities, or have at least taken their families out of cities and placed them with relatives in the countryside. Eighty-five percent of Afghanistan's population lives in villages. Again, if there is a sustained campaign against the Taliban, the humanitarian cost will be very high. One quarter of all Afghans-- that's about 4.5 million people -- depend on international aid for their survival. Continuing conflict would mean the isolation of Afghanistan.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Nic, assuming the Taliban is not willing to hand over the leaders of al Qaeda, how difficult will it be for U.S. forces to locate their whereabouts in Afghanistan?

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ROBERTSON: Human intelligence is absolutely vital. For example, in northern Ireland the British army inserted undercover agents inside the IRA. Many took years to penetrate that organization and provide useful information. It is that kind of long-term intelligence-gathering operation on the ground that will yield long-term positive results. Inserting special forces without knowing exactly where the targets are and where they're going to run will always be a dicey proposition.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do the protests across Pakistan reflect the sentiment of the majority of Pakistani people? If so, has the U.S. contributed to the destabilization of an already volatile region by pressuring Pakistan to help?

ROBERTSON: Certainly, the demonstrations today drew less people on the streets than analysts had feared, and it may indicate to President Musharraf that the opposition to his backing of the United States may not be as bad as he feared. However, if the United States attacks Afghanistan, that could draw many, many more people onto the streets. It has to be said that General Musharraf has been running into difficulties with the Islamic parties here, because of his democratic reforms. Many people in Pakistan backed his reforms, and believed he was going to have to tackle the hardline Islamic element in the country at some point. The support he may be on the verge of getting from the United States in terms of debt relief and the lifting of sanctions may very well help him at this time.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What stops the al-Qaeda from blending into Afghan society, or possibly escaping into Pakistan as refugees?

ROBERTSON: Very little. Many Arabs have flocked to bin Laden's organization in the past few years. To an Afghan, they would be easily recognizable as an Arab. However, they would find it easy to slip across the immensely porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Controlling the hundreds of kilometers of border effectively is a task Pakistan has never achieved in the past.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Roberston, what is the "on the street" reaction to Bush's speech last night?

ROBERTSON: I haven't talked to enough people to give you a good read on that, I'm sorry.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: We see very little of Afghan women and children in the footage on the news. What effect will an attack have on their lives?

ROBERTSON: It should be noted that Afghan women under Taliban rule are very restricted in their movements outside of their homes. To leave their homes, they have to be accompanied by a male relative. In the past, the women have often suffered in Afghanistan, because their husbands have been killed or maimed in conflict. Today, on the streets of Afghanistan cities, the poorest are the war widows, banned from working by the Taliban, and forced to beg from the curbside. A long conflict will mean humanitarian suffering in Afghanistan, and the weaker members of the community will suffer most.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Does anyone in the Taliban government know exactly where bin Laden is hiding in the country?

ROBERTSON: I would imagine they do. It would be hard for bin Laden to disappear so completely that the Taliban wouldn't know, unless they intentionally turn their backs. The Taliban supreme leader has enjoyed a very close relationship in recent years with Osama bin Laden. It would seem unlikely he wouldn't know how to reach him.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What condition is the Northern Alliances in currently?

ROBERTSON: Certainly the death of Massoud was a blow for the Northern Alliance. He was an excellent military tactician, and also able to hold together the fractious military commanders and politicians that made up the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance's biggest shortfall is in terms of manpower. The war for control of Afghanistan is a war of attrition, with heavy casualties on both sides. The Taliban controls far more of the country, and recruits fighters from outside as well. The Taliban has far more men to sacrifice on the battlefield. However, both lines have moved little in the last two years, and that owes as much to geography and fighting in difficult mountainous terrain, as it did to Massoud's ability to hold together the alliance.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: To Mr. Robertson, from Italy: It seems like you are live on CNN all day long, how and when do you manage to sleep? Keep up the great job and thanks.

ROBERTSON: That's very kind. Believe it or not, I'm in the middle of trying to eat my dinner. Thank you very much. Everyone at CNN is very busy these days. I couldn't have done the work I did in Afghanistan without the help of my cameraman and producer, Alfredo Delara. It's the same now, so each person you see on TV, there are many others supporting him or her.

CNN: Nic, do you have any final thoughts to share with us today?

ROBERTSON: Thank you all for your interest. This is an important region, and these are important and interesting times. I would encourage everyone to learn everything they can to better understand the situation.

CNN: Thank you for being with us today, Nic Robertson.

ROBERTSON: Thank you!

Nic Robertson joined Newsroom via telephone from Quetta, Pakistan. CNN provided a transcript. This is an edited transcript of the interview on Friday, September 21, 2001.

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